Julie Goldscheid, Professor, CUNY Law School, and Center for Gender & Sexuality Law Senior Fellow, discusses below a new White House initiative to help end dating violence and sexual assault:
The White House has launched its latest in a series of initiatives to address dating violence and sexual assault, in the form of a challenge to develop “Apps Against Abuse”. Notwithstanding years of advocacy on the issue, dating violence and sexual assault continue to be committed at startling rates. It is a particularly pernicious problem on college campuses, where students continue to struggle, often in silence. Innovative approaches that raise awareness and promote dialog about the problem can help. The recent White House campaigns draw needed attention to the problem.
Vice President Biden has been a longstanding and staunch supporter of advocacy to end domestic and sexual violence. Perhaps most notably, he was a drafter, co-sponsor, and leading driver behind the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act, (Title IV of Pub. L. 103-322, Sept. 13, 1994). He continues to focus on the problem. For example, in April, 2011, the White House, in conjunction with the Department of Education, issued a new guidance, reaffirming colleges’ obligations under federal civil rights laws to prevent and respond to the problem of campus sexual assault. That guidance makes clear the legal obligations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, of any school, college or university receiving federal funds, to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence. Those obligations have been recognized by the SCOTUS since the 1990s [Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629 (1999); Gebser v. Lago Vista Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274 (1998); Franklin v. Gwinnett County Pub. Sch., 503 U.S. 60 (1992)]. Although schools’ obligations have been in place for some time, they may less well known than other civil rights laws, particularly to students who have been subjected to sexual assault. This new White House initiative can help raise students’ awareness about schools’ obligations and may prompt schools to meaningfully respond when students’ bring complaints. Other initiatives aim to raise awareness as well. For example, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), have partnered to help students use Title IX to hold schools accountable when students complain of rape on campus.
But Title IX primarily is a tool to hold schools accountable after a sexual assault has occurred. The new White House challenge aims at prevention. It encourages the development of smart phone applications that will give college students and young adults a way to connect with “trusted friends” in “real-time” to prevent abuse or violence from occurring. The initiative is commendable, as it keeps the issue of sexual assault on campus in the public eye, and encourages community involvement and accountability. But cell phone apps may not be able to help someone who faces imminent harm. And technology should be used with caution. As much as it can be an easy way to connect with friends, it can easily be misused. The White House initiative is correct to list “privacy, security and safety” among its judging criterion; as the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net program cautions, care must be taken to ensure that technology is used to promote safety, rather than becoming an additional tool for abuse. Technology itself cannot be a substitute for the cultural change that is needed to promote a shared understanding that dating violence and sexual assault are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.